So I had an idea about a particular kind of story that gets told in space opera, and discovered Neil Gaiman had independently had the same idea, only three years earlier and talking about Doctor Who. It happens to the best of us, doesn’t it?
My version first: I was re-reading Dan Simmons’s Hyperion sequence, Hyperion (1989), The Fall of Hyperion (1990), Endymion (1996), and The Rise of Endymion (1997). The first two volumes take place in a human-dominated muti-planet “Hegemony” linked by “farcaster” matter transmitters. The first volume assembles a group of pilgrims to go to the mysterious planet Hyperion; on the way, they each tell the story of their links to Hyperion. It’s a device that explicitly acknowledges Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales as a model. But each story is told in very different registers and generic venues – so the Soldier’s Tale is straight-down-the-line action sf, the Priest’s Tale is religious horror, the Detective’s Tale is cyberpunkish-noir. The difference between them in setting and approach is certainly much greater than Chaucer had available to him, unless there’s a lost sequel in which he talked about aliens. So my basic thought was this: one of the things a space opera setting does is to create a venue in which you can tell stories in these very different registers. I found myself calling it an Interstate story, because I ended up visualising the universe of Hyperion as something like the USA: a set of discrete generic venues (planets) linked by the highways of the farcaster network. The later books in the series play further with this, so that books 3 & 4 take the protagonists on a river trip through, again, a whole range of worlds. I had the same feeling in another, very different, space opera context: one of the few effective moments in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. When Palpatine, in the third film, orders his clone troops to destroy the Jedi they’re with, we see a whole range of previously unglimpsed worlds in rapid succession: suddenly, the scale of the story becomes apparent from the range of venues it’s happening in.
Now, Neil’s version, from an introduction he wrote in 2003 to a Paul McAuley Doctor Who novella. He’s talking about the effect watching Doctor Who had on him as a child:
But the greatest damage was still to come.
It’s this: the shape of reality – the way I perceive the world – exists only because of Dr Who. Specifically, from The War Games in 1969, the multipart series that was to be Patrick Troughton’s swan song [playing the Doctor].
This is what remains to me of The War Games as I look back on it, over three decades after I saw it: The Doctor and his assistants find themselves in a place where armies fight: an interminable World War One battlefield, in which armies from the whole of time have been stolen from their original spatio-temporal location and made to fight each other. Strange mists divide the armies and the time zones. Travel between the time zones is possible, using a white, boxlike structure approximately the same size and shape as a smallish lift, or, even more prosaically, a public toilet: you get in in 1970, you come out in Troy or Mons or Waterloo. Only you don’t come out in Waterloo, as you’re really on an eternal plane, and behind it all or beyond it all is an evil genius who has taken the armies, placed them here, and is using the white boxes to move guards and agents from place to place, through the mists of time.
The boxes were called SIDRATs. Even at the age of eight I figured that one out.
It would, I have no doubt at all, be a bad thing for me to try and go back and watch The War Games now. It’s too late anyway; the damage has been done. It redefined reality. The virus was now solidly in place.
These days, as a middle-aged and respectable author, I still feel a sense of indeterminate but infinite possibility on entering a lift, particularly a small one with white walls. That to date the doors that have opened have always done so in the same time, and world, and even the same building in which I started out seems merely fortuitous – evidence only of a lack of imagination on the part of the rest of the universe.
Now, “The War Games” is a bit of a sprawling mess, at 10 x 25-minute episodes at least an hour too long, and was the result of a horrendous production crisis with other scripts dropping out at the last minute. But Neil is surely right about the appeal of these different zones bumping up against each other – we even get shown a map of the different zones, just like a map of the different states. And he’s also right about the appeal of the portal to another world, a SIDRAT, appearing in the middle of an otherwise mundane setting and providing a gateway out of it. The SIDRAT is more than just, say, C S Lewis’s wardrobe: because it looks different to its setting, yet anonymous and standardised, it sends a visible signal that there’s something odd here.
So I’d suggest that what I’ve called interstate stories – whether they happen in space opera or elsewhere – fulfil the following criteria:
- A venue composed of several sub-regions, each with distinct characteristics, often mapping onto distinct subgenres.
- Some easily visualisable means of moving between them – and a story which makes use of this, for instance by a chase through the various areas.
- Often, the author having fun with the idea of different zones or worlds colliding – so, in “The War Games”, the Doctor puts together a resistance army comprised of soldiers from many different time-periods.
Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series probably meets these criteria – and, like the Endymion books, it uses a river as the way through the worlds. I suppose the last thing to say is that this kind of story is one that can only get written late in the life of a genre, because it presumes knowledge of all the different subgenres it uses. So… is this notion of “interstate stories” useful? What other sf stories fit this bill?
11 thoughts on “Interstate travel”
The series that comes to mind is Jack L. Chalker’s Well World saga. Man, when I ran across those books as a freshman in high school, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. And I loved the maps. I’m not sure if the _genre_ changes in each zone (I was a little oblivious to genre conventions when I read them), but looking back, there were definitely different kinds of stories: court intrigues, spy stories, war tales… Fun stuff.
Jack Chalker’s Well World series, beginning with Midnight at the Well of Souls, takes place on an artificial world divided into hexagonal zones with distinct ecologies and cultures.
The short-lived 1977 TV show Fantastic Journey took place in a region of the Bermuda Triangle divided into various time/space zones. I don’t recall whether or not any individual episode took place in more than one zone, though some of the characters were interzonal.
I haven’t read Ursula LeGuin’s collection Changing Planes but based on reviews I’ve read I suspect it may be related.
Can the same concept work with time-spans instead of geographical spans? I’m thinking of Olaf Stapledon’s “Last and First Men” and the 18 races of mankind–talk about opening out a world!
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Much of Jack Vance’s output belongs to one or another of his meta-settings: the Dying Earth, Big Planet, Tschai, the Oikumene and the Gaean Reach. And he has told a range of kinds of stories in each. Any sufficiently large and complex future/fantasy series setting will offer similar possibilities–Niven’s Known Space, Banks’ Culture galaxy, Robert Reed’s mammoth Ship (Marrow, The Well of Stars).
What about various Shadows in Roger Zelazny’s Amber series? Also, as an expy of same, the various worlds in Elizabeth Willey’s Well-Favored Man.
In some ways, the closest fit to Graham’s idea (or at least the most literal version of it) would be Zelazny’s Roadmarks, with a literal highway through time, with exit ramps leading to various time periods or alternate histories. It’s not a very serious book, but lots of fun with odd mixtures of characters and worlds (a fight between an ancient martial arts master and a cyborg, the Marquis de Sade in control of a brainwired tyrannosaur…stuff like that). On the other hand, the highway itself doesn’t go through the worlds, but between them, unlike Hyperion’s river Tethys. (Isn’t there a river flowing through the twelve regions of Gaia in Varley’s Titan? Though one of those regions is a Dune-like desert, so maybe not. Pity I don’t have the books to hand…)
Now that I think about it though, perhaps a closer match would be the John de Chancie Skyway trilogy: Starrigger, Red Limit Freeway, and Paradox Alley. I once spoke to de Chancie at a con, and he said the books had been inspired by Roadmarks, though the highway here leads through space primarily (with some time travel thrown in). It’s also closer to Hyperion in that (IIRC) the Starway, created by vanished aliens, threads through the innumerable worlds it traverses, including worlds with poisonous atmospheres (or none at all), requiring humans, at least, to stay inside their vehicles while passing through. Like the farcaster arcs in Hyperion that mark the borders of worlds and allow transit between them, Tiplerian rotating cylinders on both sides of the road at occasional intervals permit it to wind between the worlds to its hypothetical end (or beginning). (I suddenly wonder if the Starway counts as a Big Dumb Object; if not the biggest, it might be the longest, since it spans the universe…)
(And I might add that while the cover copy about space truckers sounds moronic, the books takes themselves lightly and I found them pretty amusing, as did Faren Miller and John Clute (“extremely funny”, he says in the ESF, 2nd edition)).
Oops; I called de Chancie’s multiworld highway the Starway twice, but I was right the first time, when I called it the Skyway. (At least, that’s what the ESF says.) Apologies.
Gregory Frost’s brilliant Shadowbridge novels — Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet — are not only exemplars of this sort of fiction but also deal with the structural and mythic logic behind them. In fact, if I’d thought of this sub-sub-genre first, I’d have named them all after his books.
Paul Di Filippo’s “Year in the Linear City” may fit the bill, although on a smaller scale.
I think Keith Laumer covered this kind of story in the Worlds of the Imperium and Lafayette O’Leary novels.